Fathers and Sons
How one son remembers lessons from his father
Posted June 14, 2015
Will Rogers made the statement that when a son becomes a father, he often forgets what it is like to be a son. Whether or not we go along with that statement, when we flip it around, we can agree: a son does not forget what his father was like when he becomes a father.
Sons learn about themselves, about their fathers, and about fatherhood from the memories of their fathers. Sometimes they learn how not how to be fathers, but often they learn valuable lessons for their own fatherhood.
These memories can be in the form of general knowledge. From my father, I learned about maintaining dignity in the face of disapproval and about the value of humor in managing disappointment. I don’t have complete, specific memories to support these general lessons, but they seem real to me.
In other cases, general lessons are tied to specific memories. When I think about the power of well-placed self-deprecation, I remember that my father would regularly jump into conversations at the dinner table by saying, “Stop talking while I’m interrupting.” I also remember a one-time event. When a cousin of mine told my father he was part of the “greatest generation,” my father replied, “Believe me, we weren’t so great.”
Fathers can seem heroic because they have a generation of building up accomplishments, and that’s helpful to keep in mind as a son comparing himself to his father. Sometimes, however, fathers actually are heroic, which is helpful to recognize. While growing up in a poor section of New York, just as he was turning into a teenager, my father contracted a potentially fatal, potentially crippling case of polio. Five years later, after working long and hard to recover, he enlisted in the Army and fought in Germany during World War II. Remembering that keeps my own perceived difficulties in perspective.
As a teenager, I attended a reception that my father had organized. One of his colleagues tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to my father, saying, “Look at how straight and tall he stands. Look at his posture. He is an elegant man.” I looked at my father, and he was elegant, and he had great posture. Which I never noticed before. This is one of those remembered events we all have, that stay with us for the rest of our lives. Whenever I feel myself slouching now, I think of that reception and I straighten up.
Once, my son and I were shooting baskets at a park when my father joined in and took a few shots. After we were done, my father at age 71 uncharacteristically took the ball and began a series of vigorous and surprisingly quick moves – layups, jump shots, and then some more layups – as we watched in amazement. He hadn’t played basketball for more than a decade. But he didn’t seem aware of our presence. He was having fun just for himself. Then, as abruptly as he started, he stopped. The outburst of athletic activity ended quickly, but it left a lasting impression. And now I have something to look forward to. In better general health than my father, I will retain my few basketball moves into my seventies – and possibly play with my children and grandchildren.
One thing we can do to celebrate Father’s Day is to remember what we remember about our fathers and consider how these memories have shaped our lives as parents, in ways small and large.